The Assumption of Mary and the Curious Case of the Missing Relics

We continue with this excerpt from my book MARY, MOTHER OF THE SON (available on Kindle at the link):


Another curious testimony to the reality of the Assumption is demonstrated, in an oblique way, by the Church of Smyrna c. a.d. 155. There, the great saint and hero Polycarp was martyred by being burned alive. An eyewitness account, written within a few days of Polycarp’s death, informs us:

Accordingly, we afterwards took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.[1]

This was the normative practice of early Christians, and of the Church today. It accounts for why St. Peter’s Basilica and many other ancient churches are located where they are. Christians venerated the bodies of martyrs and saints because God had hallowed the body by taking on human flesh in Jesus Christ and filled the saints with his grace during their lives. Therefore, churches were often built on the sites of saints’ deaths and burials, just as St. Peter’s in Rome is built over the grave of Peter. This also accounts, by the way, for why ancient Romans thought there was something creepy about Christians. For Christians tended to meet at night—since that was the time slaves had free—in graveyards, to eat somebody’s flesh and drink somebody’s blood (John 6:53).

Now the remarkable thing is this: We know that the practice of collecting saints’ relics predates the Feast of the Dormition by centuries. Even before Polycarp’s day, you can already see the seeds of veneration of relics in Acts 19:11–12:

And God did extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them.

And so, the Church was teeming with relics (some real, some phony) by a.d. 451. Yet . . .

At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when bishops from throughout the Mediterranean world gathered in Constantinople, Emperor Marcian asked the Patriarch of Jerusalem to bring the relics of Mary to Constantinople to be enshrined in the capitol. The patriarch explained to the emperor that there were no relics of Mary in Jerusalem, that “Mary had died in the presence of the Apostles; but her tomb, when opened later . . . was found empty and so the Apostles concluded that the body was taken up into heaven.”[2]

Think about this. If the Assumption of Mary was a fantasy dreamed up two or three centuries after Mary’s time, then the practice of venerating her relics as the relics of her contemporaries were venerated would have already been in full swing. Indeed, given the divergence in the tradition about the location of her passing, it would have been virtually guaranteed that Jerusalem and/or Ephesus would have claimed her relics in the centuries before the fantasy of the Assumption was dreamed up.

Yet there is, in fact, no record of anybody anywhere ever claiming her relics. Christians venerated relics (whether real or phony) of every other contemporary of Mary, from John the Baptist to the twelve apostles. But nobody ever claimed to have the bones of the Blessed Virgin. Instead, the tradition, however fuzzy it is about details (owing to the destruction and chaos visited on the historical holy places), nonetheless retains a core conviction (preserved in the liturgy) that Mary was assumed into heaven body and soul. Given that the focus of the early Church was on questions concerning Jesus, not Mary, that’s pretty much what we should expect, if the doctrine of her Assumption is true. That’s why, when the Feast of the Dormition was promulgated, the idea of Mary’s Assumption was pretty much a non-controversy. Though there were disagreements about fine points, the core tradition was still a point of agreement by all: Mary’s body is not here, she had been assumed body and soul into heaven.

More on Monday.

[1] Martyrdom of Polycarp 18. Link available as of August 5, 2015.

[2] Stevens, “The Assumption of Mary.”


3 Responses

  1. No one in 33 AD thought to save handkerchiefs or aprons that Mary – the mother of Jesus himself – had touched?
    If Acts 19 is authority that relics do not need to be parts of the deceased’s corpse, then (had the early Christians been as proto-Catholic as many claim), a bodily Assumption of Mary would have been no obstacle to a thriving cult in Marian relics. Certainly by the time of the Reformation many churches in Europe claimed to possess vials of her breast milk and other similar non-fatal memorabilia of Jesus’ mother, so it is incongruous that Constantine, centuries earlier, was told these didn’t exist.
    Alternatively, if relics have to be body parts, then Acts 19 is not a precedent for relics.

    1. Okay, I think I can guess the (or a) Catholic reply to my previous comment (and saved Mark the trouble):
      1. “Relics” can mean both (a) bodily parts and (b) objects touched by the person.
      2. Acts 19 is only talking about “relics” in sense (b).
      3. Marcian (sorry, not Constantine) was talking about “relics” in sense (a).
      4. There are plenty of Catholic churches around Europe with Marian “relics” in sense (b) (well, claiming to have…but who would dare lie about so weighty a matter)
      Ie, it’s one of those terms like “church” or “saint” or “tradition” or “good works” (or “Catholic” for that matter) that has two or more overlapping meanings, depending on context, such that opposing statements can be true about different meanings. (“America borders the Atlantic Ocean. Hawaii is America. Hawaii does not border the Atlantic Ocean”).

    2. I am referring to first class relics: namely bones, which the Christians treasured and would absolutely have claimed, if any such existed. Nobody ever did. It’s a dog that didn’t bark situation.

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